Thursday, May 22, 2014

Denmark in Pictures

I thought I would share a bit of my life in Denmark with some of my favorite photos. I'll post more on facebook, but large photo albums can be a bit tedious. Here are a just a few highlights. Enjoy!

Panoramic of my room. It was cozy and lovely!

The quaint street with apartments located above the cute flower shops and clothing boutiques.

The beautiful colored buildings along Nyhavn. Very touristy, but so much history! Constructed in the 1670's it was the gateway into Copenhagen for cargo and fish and sailors. Hans Christian Anderson, famous Danish fairy tale author, even lived here for some years in the 1800's. 

Rosenborg Castle Gardens. One of my favorite places in the city! When I arrived, little blossoms were just starting to poke through the grass. Danish castles are a bit more humble, not so ostentatious, when compared with those I visited in Germany. 

Also Rosenborg Castle Gardens. On a bright, sunny day everyone comes out to enjoy it! And you better believe I was right there with them. It had been a few months since I'd gone outside without a heavy coat... The sunshine and warmth was most welcome.

The Little Mermaid. A classic, Danish icon. She's a bit smaller than I expected and the industry seemed odd in the background of the dainty figure. 

I absolutely LOVED the flowers displayed on the sidewalks everywhere. It never failed to make me smile and brighten my day! I must not have realized just how dreary those winter months can be. Spring was a welcome sight to my eyes. 

Yes, that's right. I went to IKEA in Denmark. I think the meatballs tasted even better closer to the source. Fun Fact: IKEA opened a store in Jordan this year! I got to see the building progress, but obviously missed out on the grand opening. Hope the Jordanians enjoy the lingonberry sauce!

Tivoli Gardens! The second oldest amusement park in the world, right in the middle of Copenhagen. And the world's oldest amusement park, Bakken, is just a short train ride north of the city. I say the Danish really know how to have fun. 

Tivoli is a magical place with a very different atmosphere than Disneyland... Perhaps more relaxed and cozier. I went with Anne and Eva and we picked a beautiful day to go!

Just a photo I liked from the canal tour I took one day. There is so much water in Copenhagen, it's really quite amazing!

The view from the path along the sea where I ran nearly every day. If you look closely on the horizon, you'll see a line of windmills. The Danish love their wind energy. I couldn't get enough of the fresh, sea air. It was glorious! 

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Misconception

Life in Denmark was good, as I’m sure you all read in my last post. But with how much I enjoyed my time in Denmark, I must note that I almost decided not to go to Denmark at all. Back in January and February, during my unsettled month, I had a lot of second thoughts about spending a month in Denmark. This doubt was triggered by a couple conversations with people in Germany. These well-meaning people, who wanted me to see the best of disability provisions in Europe, informed me that Denmark offers free prenatal testing to all pregnant women. Thus, the number of babies born with Down Syndrome has significantly decreased in the past decade or so due to abortions following a prenatal diagnosis. The perception of Denmark and the government was that it is their goal to eradicate Down Syndrome from society. 

This was extremely disheartening to hear and I began to look into alternative countries. However, it dawned on me slowly that, assuming what these people said about Denmark was true, project work in Denmark would open my eyes to a whole different issue I had yet to explore this year. Prenatal testing, its connections to people with special needs, and the mindset of a society that heavily prioritizes a woman’s choice are highly relevant topics and aspects of my project I may have missed out on had I not traveled to Denmark. 

I did quite a bit of reading on prenatal testing while in Denmark and I brought up the subject with nearly everyone I spoke to. I am happy to report that the negative perception that people in Germany have of Denmark is not reality. What I actually found is a country very much in tune to the needs of people with special needs and an adequately funded social welfare system that does its best to provide for people. 

I want to highlight one organization, Lavuk, that I found quite impressive. This organization’s whole mission is to create meaningful spare time activities for adults with disabilities. One of the main supervisors I spoke with said, “It’s my job to make everyday special and fun.” How awesome is that!? Lavuk is open in the evenings Monday to Friday and transportation is provided to the facility and events located elsewhere. They have more than 200 members who regularly participate in activities offered during the week. 

The activities are completely varied. They have music events at the center, art and sewing time, sports activities, and of course movies and video games available. They also serve dinner for anyone who would like to join. They go horseback riding and bowling and even offer six or seven overnight trips each year. So, how is all of this paid for? It’s really quite interesting. When an individual requests to become a member of Lavuk, staff members get together and compose a proposal to send to the municipality. It is the municipality, basically the city level, that manages the budget for people with disabilities in their community. The municipality then approves for funds to be allocated to the individual. Some members attend Lavuk five days a week, others only one or two days, this is all based on how much funding they are given. Of course, the funding is not unlimited. If an individual with special needs is already receiving funds to live in a residential home, it might be more difficult to receive money to attend activities at Lavuk as well. If an individual lives at home, funding might come more easily. From what I heard though, the goal of both Lavuk and the municipality is to work together to meet the needs of the individual as best they can. 

Following my initial visit to Lavuk, I was invited to come back for their live music event on a Friday night. It was a happening place! There was a band, with a few members who had disabilities, playing great music. A number of people were dancing, many of them with Down Syndrome I might add. I could have predicted they would be on the dance floor. :) Others were finishing up their dinner, staff members were ensuring that those in wheelchairs were comfortable and had a good view of the action, and others were visiting with their peers, enjoying a cup of coffee. After dinner there was a snack bar set up as well. People lined up to buy an ice cream bar, a bag of chips, or a nice cold Carlsberg beer. I sat down and chit chatted with Trine and Claus, while others came over and shook my hand throughout the evening. We listened to the music and talked about traveling, food, Denmark, movies, and music. It was good fun!


On the way home that night, I was really moved by what good work Lavuk is doing. The friendly, welcoming, and loving staff members are all about creating fun, social time for people with special needs. Think about this for a minute, all of us “typical” people have the ability to organize our own spare time. We can go to the movies and effortlessly buy popcorn. We can call up our friends and meet for coffee. We can ride bikes and go shopping, you name it. By the time we are teenagers we are completely independent. We are capable of organization, transportation, and any other logistics that arise. None of this is true for most people with disabilities, especially people in wheelchairs and even more severely, people in wheelchairs who can’t feed themselves or communicate. But these individuals have the right to social activity too! They shouldn’t just have to sit at home after work (if they do go to work) because they have certain limitations. Lavuk is one such organization that makes it happen. I was impressed and deeply moved by their efforts and the compassion and joy that staff members have at their job. They make sure everyone is cared for, loved, and included. It is a safe and clean environment where individuals can drink a beer, buy a candy bar, use the computers, play video games, watch movies, and just generally be stimulated by their peers and the activity around them. It was awesome to experience. Well done, Lavuk!

And I have to say again what a privilege it is for me to get to spend time with people with special needs all over the world. Even though some of them smell funny or have drool coming out of their mouth, even though I don’t know how clean their hands are when I get a heartfelt handshake or they spit in my face when they talk, I love them all. They deserve attention and love and respect as much, or perhaps even more, than everyone else. And anyone who commits just a bit of time, attention, and love to an individual with special needs will see their efforts repaid ten-fold with the sincere kindness, joy, humor, and simplicity that a person with special needs gives. 

Looking back, I can’t believe I almost didn’t go to Denmark. I would have missed out on a lot of learning opportunities. As far as the issues with prenatal testing, it seems to me that perhaps well-meaning people in other countries saw one news article about the declining birth rate of kids with Down Syndrome and assumed the worst about the government and the healthcare system. While I do think that Denmark favors a woman’s right to choose, it is certainly not anyone’s goal to eliminate imperfections from society. And I’m so grateful I took the chance to visit Denmark and discover that for myself. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Life in Denmark Was Good

Goodness, I’m so behind with blogging! Here I am, more than 3 weeks into my time in England and I’ve haven’t shared anything about Denmark! But before I talk about the good life in Denmark, I want to preface things by describing a bit of my emotional state upon arriving in the country. I have posted some of the highlights of the two months I spent in Germany, but what follows is a closer look at my thoughts and struggles during that time. I wrote about this in my third quarterly report I sent to the Watson last month, so I will include a lot of it here. It serves as a good recap of the last few months. 

“I took a different approach this quarter and was not stationed in one city for the whole time. Instead, I had a short term home base in three different cities, in two different countries. As a result, the past three months were very different from the six months that came before. My experiences, emotions, thoughts, project work, and living situations the last three months in Germany and Denmark were vastly different when compared with my time in Jordan or Japan. 

I started this quarter in the quaint city of Nuremberg, Germany and my time here was marked by one word—unsettled. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly relished the luxuries of being in a Western European country after my adventure in the Middle East: good indoor heating and plumbing, convenient public transportation, and no stares from loitering men. Likewise, it was rather refreshing to be in a small, sleepy, Bavarian city after the utter chaos of Amman and the crowdedness of Tokyo. Despite these positives (and many others) I was often consumed with anxiety about the coming months. I wasn’t sleeping well and my brain was all over the place. Half of me was present in Nuremberg, while the other half was planning for a visit from my family, scheduling my stay in Hamburg, Germany, and assessing the feasibility and timing of my stay in Denmark. I quickly realized the nice thing about staying in one place for a longer period, there’s far more time to focus on the task at hand. In Jordan and Japan my brain was not pulled in so many different directions and I missed that during the month in Nuremberg. 

However, having too much to think about isn’t necessarily a foreign feeling. Four years at Harvey Mudd taught me a lot about handling anxiety and constant busyness. Of course, there’s one big difference between the brain pull of school and that of the Watson. At school, my schedule was mostly prescribed for me. I was told when to go to class, turn in homework, or attend meetings. The “have to” mindset has no part in the Watson Fellowship. Nothing is dictated for me. And while this complete freedom is one of my favorite aspects of the fellowship, during this month in Nuremberg I felt the exhaustion of having to constantly create my own structure, routine, and priorities. During this month, it was quite taxing to think about how to fill my days. All of these feelings—unsettledness, anxiety, exhaustionleft me significantly unmotivated. 

But with a lot of prayer and a “just push through” attitude I made it through being unmotivated and made some fantastic project connections! After three months of “Arab time” where scheduling is flexible, most things start late, and communication is hit or miss, I so appreciated the quick email responses from people in Germany and their willingness to meet with me. It was really a good place to go for such a short time because everyone was so efficient at getting back to me and scheduling appointments! 

Some of my struggles that first month in Germany may have been due to missing my family as well. After seven months away, I needed to see some familiar faces! So, my family’s visit was a refreshing interruption to my solo travels. Their visit was just the beginning of a complete whirlwind of a month though! After sending them off, I headed to Hamburg in the northern part of Germany. I was short three travel buddies, but I gained a suitcase (winter clothes take up far more room than clothes for summer in Japan) and a fresh perspective on the convenience of traveling alone. 

After just two and a half weeks in Hamburg, I uprooted myself once again and moved to Copenhagen, Denmark. I handled this transition far better than the move from Amman to Nuremberg, only slight anxiety and much more excitement. However, I didn’t get much chance to adjust before I headed to Norway for a three day conference organized by the Norwegian Down Syndrome association. I had a total blast meeting different families, listening to interesting lectures, sharing my experience as a sibling to new parents, and learning about the situation for people with Down Syndrome in Norway. I even learned some sweet new dance moves from the kids at the Disco night. It was a fantastically stimulating three days and I can’t think of a better way I could have spent my time on World Down Syndrome Day.

The Norway trip concluded my whirlwind month. I came back to Copenhagen for the final month of this quarter. A month marked by complete joy and contentment. I finally felt like I was able to take a breath, rest, and reassess my priorities.”

German was amazing, but it took its toll on both my mental and physical energy. I was able to rest, recuperate, and process everything in Copenhagen. Here’s some of the things that generally contributed to my contentedness:

I had a fantastic living situation. I didn’t know this before coming to Copenhagen, but there are not many vacancies in the city. Just as I was beginning to think I would have to spend five weeks in a hostel, I got a response back on an ad I had posted a couple weeks before. Anne and her daughter, Eva, had a spare room they were renting out. It was perfect and absolutely an answer to prayer. Anne and Eva treated me like part of the family, but gave me space and independence as well. I felt completely at home, the room was luxury, and the location was a place I thought I would only dream of living. 

Speaking of location, the sea was only about one mile from the apartment. One mile through a beautiful wooded park and past an old castle before opening up onto the coast. It's been years since I ran seriously in high school, but in Denamrk I started running again. I had to take advantage of the perfect location and was even further motivated by the healthy and fit Danish people around me. After the extreme heat in Japan, the cultural stigma of running outside in Jordan, and the cold winter in Germany, it was time to get out and run. And I loved it!

Finally, let’s talk about “hygge.” This is a Danish word that doesn’t translate well into English, but it is a hugely important part of Danish culture.  After talking with numerous people about what hygge means to them, the best way I can describe it is “cozy quality time.” Getting together with friends and family, sharing a meal, engaging in conversation or watching a movie, that’s hygge. Intentional quality time with the people you’re close to, in a cozy atmosphere, that’s hygge. And I think it’s fantastic! Without knowing we were channeling our Danish roots, my family (particularly my Mom) is quite good at cozy quality time, it’s something I grew up appreciating. For example, I remember so fondly the “picnic” dinners we had when I was kid. A simple meal spread out on a blanket in the living room as we watched Little House on the Prairie or You’ve Got Mail. Learning about and experiencing hygge in Denmark made me feel so at home and relaxed. It was lovely. 

Part of the reason I didn’t blog so much during my stay in Denmark was because it felt like my time, time I just wanted to relish for myself. But now, after the fact, I appreciate the opportunity to relive it as I share it here. Life in Denmark was good. :)

Eva (left) and Anne (right). My Danish family! 

Love them so much!

Eating traditional Danish ice cream in Helsingør. Two scoops of ice cream 
topped with whip cream, jam, and a flødeboller 
or chocolate covered marshmallow. YUM!